Duration of initiative: 2013-2018 (and ongoing)
Case study written: Spring 2018
The Active Learning Initiative (ALI) is an ongoing, donor-funded program run by Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Departments within the college compete for grants of up to $1M over five years that enable faculty teams to introduce active learning and other research-based innovations into significant portions of their undergraduate curriculum. The program is modeled on the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI). About ⅓ of the college’s departments are participating after two rounds of competition.
What is the context of the initiative?
Cornell University, College of Arts and Sciences
- Institution type: liberal arts college in a large, research-intensive private university.
- Size: ~14,000 undergraduate students and ~1,500 faculty. The College of Arts and Sciences accounts for about a third of the undergraduates and faculty, but also teaches around a third of the courses taken by undergraduates from other colleges.
Departments involved in the initiative
- Eligible departments: all departments in the College of Arts and Sciences. Several of these departments are shared with other colleges.
- Participating departments: departments who won awards in the first two rounds of the grant competition are: Classics; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Economics; Mathematics; Music; Neurobiology and Behavior; Physics; and Sociology. The next competition will be in 2018.
How was the initiative structured?
The ALI is an ongoing, donor-funded grant program for departments
The program is donor-funded, and it has spent or committed close to $5M USD so far. Department grants range in size from seed grants (~$200K) to large transformation grants (~$1M) spread over several years. Only departments (not individuals) can apply for grants, and applications must be endorsed by the department’s faculty. The size of the grants catches the attention of departments and is sufficient for funding substantial changes.
- Successes. About a third of the college’s departments have created winning proposals. This includes almost all of the STEM departments, but also departments in the social sciences and humanities. About half of the proposals in the last round were funded. Teams from individual departments typically include around a half dozen faculty members, comprising a significant fraction of the department’s faculty. Department approval of proposals means that pedagogy and learning research have become topics for faculty meetings in those departments. Reported successes inspire other faculty in the department to try new pedagogies in their courses.
- Challenges. This approach is highly dependent on leadership from the department chair and a strong commitment and openness to new ideas from the faculty involved. These features can be tricky to assess from the proposals by themselves, so multiple meetings with prospective teams are important (and time consuming). Leadership changes at all levels must be managed carefully, and the program must be willing to suspend support for grant winners who turn out to be unable to deliver the needed leadership and commitment.
Grants are a one-time investment, spent mostly on teaching fellows
Department grants are meant to fund the conversion of courses from, for example, traditional lecture courses into modern active-learning courses. Out of necessity, the new courses are designed to leave the long-term costs of running the courses unchanged. The grants provide one-time funding that makes the conversion possible. For most projects, the bulk of the funding is used to hire ‘teaching fellows’, temporary staff who are typically postdocs, to work with the faculty on the course conversions. The biggest obstacle for faculty who want to work on such projects is lack of time; the second biggest problem is lack of expertise on research-based pedagogy and student learning. The teaching fellows address both these issues. They help faculty organize their course and design the educational materials used in and out of the classroom. They also help faculty design their courses so that the impact of the teaching innovations can be assessed and the innovations improved. Serious assessment is essential to the program, and research publications based on data from the projects are encouraged. Teaching fellows need disciplinary expertise as well as pedagogy expertise; they are typically postdocs in the subject area, who may or may not come with experience in pedagogy and learning research.
- Successes. Faculty have responded quite positively to the teaching fellows, and the combination of faculty plus teaching fellows has proven highly effective. Teaching fellows seem to have no problem finding jobs when they leave ALI programs.
- Challenges. Providing adequate training and supervision for teaching fellows is nontrivial; teaching fellows need training in pedagogy and learning science. The ALI relied initially upon the standard offerings of its center for teaching and learning, but now offers more substantial opportunities since Cornell hired research faculty in science teaching and learning. Teaching fellows also need strong supervision. This should come from inside their departments, but the ALI can provide backup supervision. It can also create opportunities for fellows from different disciplines to interact with each other.
The ALI is among the dean’s top priorities
The ALI was designed by the college’s previous dean, then promoted to a top priority by his successor, who recruited him to run the ALI. The dean is uniquely well-placed within Cornell’s hierarchy to drive a program like the ALI. This is in part because the dean has access to donors and other funding at levels sufficient to support the ALI. More importantly, departments report to the dean, who sets their support levels. Effective department chairs, therefore, pay attention to their dean’s priorities and consider how to align department priorities with them. Finally, the dean controls most of the incentive system for faculty and so can adjust incentives to promote ALI goals.
- Successes. Two deans in a row have made the ALI a priority.
- Challenges. Deans change over time.
What were the key outcomes of the initiative?
Courses have improved and department teaching cultures are changing
The first round of ALI grants targeted introductory physics and biology sequences, taken by thousands of students annually. These have shown significant improvements in student performance: several classes saw almost a letter-grade improvement in the entire grade distribution for matched exams relative to the original course. Performance gaps between underrepresented groups and the general class population have been reduced and, in some courses, eliminated. Student response has been generally positive. The impact on several of the ALI faculty has been transformative. There is growing evidence that the new teaching practices are spreading to other faculty within the ALI departments. The second round of ALI grants is too recent to show outcomes, beyond the fact that a third of the college departments are now participating.
How do I get more information?
Example Request for Proposals.
Contact: Peter Lepage (email@example.com).